Teens may be less likely to try to buy cigarettes at convenience stores if they aren't available in plain sight behind the counter, a new study using a virtual reality game suggests.
"We know the retail environment is a very important place for tobacco companies to advertise and market their products," Annice Kim, from the independent research institute RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, told The Christian Science Monitor. "They're prominently displayed at the point of sale, and it exposes all customers, including kids."
With the passing of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, states and local governments were given the legal means to lay out some restrictions on cigarette advertising strategy and placement, U.S. News reported.
The researchers sent more than 1,200 youths — ages 13 to 17 — into a simulated online convenience store on a virtual reality game they designed. The participants were asked to select four items in the store: a drink from the coolers, a snack from the aisles and two products of their choice from the checkout counter.
While the cabinet behind the counter prominently displayed cigarettes, the cabinet was closed and the display covered up in some cases. Researchers found that 16 to 24 percent of teens tried to buy cigarettes when the display was open, compared to 9 to 11 percent who asked when it was closed.
"The banning of all in-store cigarette ads appeared to have a minimal impact on cigarette shopping habits," U.S. News reported. "However, when shopping in stores where tobacco products themselves were hidden, only 32 percent of teens appeared to be aware of the availability of cigarettes to begin with, compared with about 85 of those who shopped in stores where cigarettes were openly displayed."
Findings will be published Monday in Pediatrics.
"Policies that require retailers to store tobacco products out of view could have a positive public health impact," Kim told Reuters Health.
This study, she said, will be considered along with other evaluations of tobacco product advertising restrictions before legal action is taken.